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The Difference Between Index Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds

Oct 16, 2023 By Triston Martin

One of the first things you should do when learning to invest is to differentiate between index funds and exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. Exchange-traded funds are usually more adaptable and user-friendly than traditional mutual funds. Compared to index and conventional mutual funds, ETFs are more liquid and may be exchanged at will, much like ordinary stocks on a stock market.

Compared to mutual funds, ETFs allow investors to make more manageable and less cumbersome first investments. Unlike mutual funds, which need specialized accounts and paperwork, ETFs may be purchased using standard brokerage accounts.

Index Mutual Funds

The purpose of index funds is to mimic the performance and composition of a particular financial market index by investing in a portfolio of securities that are assumed to reflect that index. Unlike indexes, which cannot be directly supported in, index funds can.

By doing so, you are engaging in passive investing that entails establishing rules for which stocks qualify and then following the stocks without actively trying to outperform them. Index funds, which track a market index like the Nasdaq 100 or S&P 500, are an inexpensive alternative to actively managed mutual funds.

Exchange Traded Funds

Exchange-Exchanged Funds are portfolios of assets that are traded like stocks. The fees associated with investing in mutual funds vs ETFs is another area where the two types of funds diverge. Mutual funds don't typically charge their investors fees for buying or selling shares.

However, due to lower taxes and management fees, ETFs have lower overall costs than stocks and bonds. In terms of prices, index mutual funds are preferred by passive retail investors over ETFs. However, ETFs are more popular among passive institutional investors. Experts in the financial sector often view index fund investing as less active than value investing.

Contrasting Exchange-Traded Funds with Index Funds

Trading dynamics is a crucial area where index funds and ETFs diverge. In the same way that stock shares may be purchased and sold whenever the market is open, so can ETF shares. While you can place orders for shares of an index fund anytime you choose, purchases are only made once daily, after the markets shut. Therefore, unlike index funds, the price of an individual ETF will vary many times throughout the trading day.

Costs of Trading

While the cost ratios of the index and exchange-traded funds are similar, the other fees that these two types of investments incur might vary widely. Trading commissions on most stock trades have been eliminated, and many brokers do not charge a commission on ETF trades. Meanwhile, sales commissions for index funds via a broker may add up quickly.

Investment Minimums

Minimum investments in index funds might be several thousand dollars. There is no low-end for investing in ETFs. Although the minimum investment with some index fund providers is reduced when making monthly contributions to a tax-deferred retirement plan, these amounts can still be relatively high.

Equivalent Shares

Most exchange-traded funds have just recently begun offering fractional shares. On the other hand, index funds have traditionally been provided in decimal increments. Whether or not you end up with a fractional share depends on the NAV on the day of your purchase, which is used to convert the INR value of your investment into the appropriate number of shares in an index fund.

Similarities Between Exchange-Traded Funds and Index Funds

Most ETFs and other exchange-traded funds follow a passive index strategy, which is the same strategy used by index funds. The long-term goal of this highly diversified approach is to provide consistent returns.


Index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) make portfolio diversification easy. They are similar in providing access to many securities (hundreds or thousands, depending on the index they track). This might significantly lessen the potential for your portfolio to suffer from large market fluctuations. While stock prices might fluctuate daily, the Nifty 50 typically moves less than 1% either way.

Gains Long-Term

Actively managed mutual funds have underperformed their less diversified, passively managed counterparts over the long term. Although a select few active managers have demonstrated the ability to generate outstanding returns by selecting individual assets over shorter time horizons, it is highly unusual for such managers to maintain a good track record across decades.

Special Considerations

For decades, financial experts have discussed the merits of exchange-traded funds vs. index funds, but ultimately, the decision comes down to the individual investor. Decisions are often based on personal values about management fees, shareholder activity costs, taxation, or other qualitative distinctions.

Ordinary people have a strong preference for index funds. Ordinary investors favor index funds over exchange-traded funds because of their cheap fees, ease of use, and accessibility.

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